Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Nikko, Komaba

Small is better. Pocket gardens, bonsais. Tachibana takes me to a cheap restaurant where we eat takoyaki, octopus balls, sorry, omelette-like balls with bits of octopus inside. Popular with schoolkids. Four tables sitting two apiece and six seats at the counter. A large establishment by Tokyo standards, where many bars run by a mama-san are much smaller.

But Tokyo is not Japan. And up in the hills outside Tokyo the concept of space is altogether different. At first sight, Nikko, a tourist town up in the hills with famous shrines and hot springs spa hotels, could be... England. Walking up the deserted main street at 6.30 on a dull Saturday evening reminds me of many a country town in middle England. Cars pass, but no pedestrians, I am homesick for the wall-to-wall restaurants, the thundering neon, the pink light zones, and I realize that Japan, outside the big cities, is a very car-dominated society.

I was looking for winter, and I found it in Nikko. In the hills trees bare, brittle branches ready to fall and disintegrate, and dying bamboo shoots. During the night a storm wiped the few remaining maple leaves into the gutter, but next day was summer again, temperatures up to 25C, while heavy snow fell in Hokkaido in the North.

Up above Nikko,
Bare bracken, dry and crumbling.
The leaves have fallen.

And where are all the trendy mini-skirted kawai, cute, girls? The Daily Yomuri warns me: “Japan heading for extinction” due to the low birth rate, while in Tokyo I have been surrounded by a never-never land of schools, universities and young people.

Teenage girls and boys
In Shibuya, Komaba.
Ah! So few of them!

In Komaba I try to buy stamps at the stationer’s. Friday’s lady is not there, and an old couple are in charge: her parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents. A bent old lady, as so many are, from long hours in the paddies, and her husband. 50, 60, 70, 80 years together, for people live till a mighty old age in Japan. She has difficulty in giving change, usually to her advantage. She can’t find the list of charges for Xmas cards to Iran. Husband insults. She retorts.

Couple in the shop,
Together for eighty years,
Insults day and night.
There are few incidents for the flaneur in Japan. Fights, robberies, shows of emotion in public are all too rare. Even the Friday night drunks behave with composure. But last Wednesday after Komabatodaimae Station the crowds gathered round as the station guards retrieved the schoolbag thrown onto the line by a chubby 13-year-old. He was told off in front of a growing crowd and seemed to be breaking down. He had lost his “face”; he was looking a fool in front of others. Ruth Benedict, in her classic study on Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, believes that looking bad in front of others is the worst thing that can happen to anyone in Japan, and contrasts this with Western feelings of guilt.

In traditional Samurai culture this loss of face would often result in suicide. It still often does when business or political frauds are uncovered. And parents have committed suicide through the shame of their child committing a serious crime.

And this can make teaching difficult. Opinions are not ventured; guesses are not hazarded, shots are not taken. The Rabbinical tradition of battering out ideas, interpretations, exegesis, Protestant arguing points of the Bible, Platonic dialogue, parliamentary debate, soapboxes, Hyde Park Corner, la clarte francaise are not part of the Japanese tradition. One must always be sensitive to the feelings of others, always avoiding possibilities of offence or embarrassment. Read between the lines; read the way I say things, not what I say. Watch my intonation, slight body movements, don’t read my words.

After work drinking sessions, almost the norm in many companies, are where bonding takes place and important decisions are taken. At the University of Tokyo clubs, outings, drinking sessions at the Students’ festival have a similar function, bringing together many of those who will play a central role in deciding the future of Japan.


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Blogger Marco Aspromonti said...

I wish I had your quick and deep look into things: it could be useful since I'm here in Tokyo for a few days... Been to Nikko: I saw the tourists yes, but not fully realized the empty space around. Only now I do, after reading this post...

October 22, 2006 at 10:28 AM  

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